My visceral dislike of “dirt bikes”―essentially, off-asphalt motorcycles―and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)―four-wheeled motorized vehicles designed for an operator and no passengers―on America’s public-land trails was born one day in the early 90s.
I was hiking a trail to La Cueva Lake in northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest. A dirt bike―snarling, smoking, spewing stones, and trailing clouds of dust―overtook me as I climbed. Evidence of dirt bikes―and, likely, ATVs―was everywhere on the trail: pulverized earth, exposed roots and rock, damaged and destroyed vegetation. Such machinery had created a five-foot-wide thoroughfare of destruction where, decades earlier, there was surely just a lovely, tranquil path of moist, intact, nutrient-rich earth; wildflowers; grasses; and rungs of pine duff not much wider than the girth of your average fly fisherman. By the 90s, however, America was well into the era of “multiple use,” the holy grail of the off-road-motorized crowd and, sadly, the sell-out of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. In places en route to La Cueva, I deliberately left the trail to walk on a nearby parallel path, probably the original route that had been similarly chewed up and spat out by machinery. The Forest Service was obviously attempting to heal it, as it was crisscrossed in a most unnatural way with trunks, limbs, and branches to discourage traffic of any kind. Yet even with forty-five pounds on my back, I managed to dipsy-doodle comfortably over and around the obstacles―anything to get me off that dusty gravel chute. Eventually, the spruce, aspen, and tranquility of little La Cueva Lake soothed my nerves.
So I was curious and, frankly, a little puzzled when, one June day, Chris, my Ecosystem Council boss, asked me to represent the organization at a “training event” for ATV operation.
Aren’t ATVs the council’s sworn enemy? I wondered. But I didn’t verbally question her request.
It was a two-day affair on National Forest land near South Fork, Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a 50-minute drive from Alamosa. I commuted to the event both days.
The first day, we met at a place called Beaver Creek Canyon. Some twenty-five people, mostly male, were present. The participants included the instructor, who was an ATV enthusiast and member of the Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team; Colorado State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service employees from around the state; an employee from Play Dirty ATV Tours of Texas Creek, Colorado (an arid, lovely area in the Arkansas River drainage where I once did a memorable car-camp); an employee of Fay Meyers Motorcycle World in Denver; a staff attorney for an ORV organization; and Roz, an environmentalist and colleague of Chris’s from the Boulder, Colorado, area.
The purpose of the first day’s event was training in the safe operation of a “quad”: as near as I could figure, another name for an ATV. Eight quads were provided for our training. They were militant little vehicles of steel and plastic with tires bearing tooth-like treads―infant stegosauri. The event was conducted on a half-acre “practice area” carpeted with summer-ripening grasses. As an operator, I was fitted with goggles and a massive safety helmet, the combination of the two instantly expunging the surrounding forest and delivering me to the asphalt, brick, and checkered flags of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then, “Mount your machines!” bellowed Kenton, the instructor. So much for subtlety, I thought.
Meanwhile, What in the hell am I doing here? I wondered.
Although I was perfectly cordial, I was already fighting with every fiber of my body the fact that I was at this event. Meanwhile, I didn’t know who or what compelled Roz to attend, but she seemed to indicate that she, too, felt out of place. She was clearly nervous about “mounting” and operating one of the quads. Still, I was grateful for her presence and camaraderie. I never doubted she shared my distaste for this machinery.
Around and around we all drove, with varying ability, on the “practice track,” our snorting, grunting quads pummeling the grass and soil and raising dust. When he wasn’t showering us with a lot of mechanical jargon, Kenton advised us to always “look four or five seconds ahead” as we ripped through the primeval, and “accelerate when making sharp turns.” On his own machine, he demonstrated such acceleration, and I bristled when I saw how much additional terra firma that little maneuver disturbed. But, to his credit, he reminded us to practice “courtesy” and “cleanliness,” stay on “established trails,” and avoid impacting “virgin soil and vegetation,” although I seriously doubted how honoring that last request was even possible given the size and brute force of these quads.
At the end of the day, we all dripped dust. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the acreage on which we held the event was effectively trampled, and bore a nascent 8-foot-wide circular dirt track―the Rio Grande National Forest’s newest sacrifice area.
The following day, we gathered slightly closer to South Fork, at the Tewksbury trailhead. Far more people attended this event, which dealt primarily with the operation of dirt bikes―bare-bones motorcycles with heavy-duty, sophisticated shock-absorbers and more tires bearing formidable teeth. Some fifty males and a half-dozen females, mostly in their 20s and 30s arrived―from where I had no idea―in their electric-blue-and-orange shirts and pants, helmets, boots, gloves, and breastplates. Although all were theoretically there to learn about “managing the sound” of two- and four-stroke motorcycle engines, I sensed the greater motivation was the chance to show off their Mighty Morphin Power Ranger finery and their machines, and, of course, to get down to the business of conquering the “multiple use” Tewksbury Trail.
An allusion to warfare joined sexual innuendo this day when Kenton, observing that some important guests had yet to show up, declared them “missing in action.” We were advised to avoid “modified pipes” and install “spark arrestors” to dampen the noise of our machines and thus better enjoy the sounds of the forest, including presumably the robins and crows that chattered on the limbs and branches above us as Kenton lectured. I could almost hear the attendees salivating when he informed them―to my astonishment―that the Rio Grande National Forest had eight hundred miles of trails available for motorized use. When the subject of respect for “virgin soils” came up, I heard one Power Ranger snarl, sotto voce, to another about the “damn posy-pickers.” With this, Roz and I exchanged knowing looks.
At the conclusion of the instruction, there was a collective sigh, bikes were mounted, bandannas were raised to mouths and noses, clouds of blue smoke materialized, and the Power Rangers funneled into the entrance of the Tewksbury Trail to once again commune with nature. No off-road machinery was provided for Roz and myself this day, so we slunk to our respective on-road motor vehicles as we bid each other goodbye. I knew one was supposed to “take only pictures” when one was in our national forests, but I couldn’t resist picking a few dusty posies for my wife before climbing into my truck. There was more day to dawn and the sun was but a morning star.
On the drive home, I reflected. I knew Chris wasn’t a gearhead. She had told me as much, and I recalled seeing on her car a bumper sticker that read “THE HUMAN BODY: THE BEST ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE.” I concluded that the purpose of my attending this two-day event was simply to increase the visibility of the council with Colorado’s public lands managers―who, I was willing to concede, had legitimate uses for off-road-vehicles in their day-to-day work―and to develop a kind of Don Corleone “keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer” relationship with the off-road-vehicle zealots.
Still, on the drive home, I returned to unexpurgated Ed Abbey, specifically an entry in his journal in 1984: “One punk slob on a dirt bike makes more noise takes up more space inflicts more damage than a hundred horsemen or a thousand walkers.”